History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Charlemagne and His Time

This volume opens at the end of the eighth century. The centre of gravity of the Jews was still in the East; but their best work there was almost done. We see them joining the great human tide that was moving steadily westward.

The Spanish Peninsula was now largely Mohammedan. Under the sway of cultured and enlightened Moors (as the Mohammedans in Spain were called) that which had been to them a land of iron persecution became the centre of benevolent liberalism. We shall see how this favorable environment created a golden era for Israel. This volume will be largely concerned with their life and their literary achievements in Spain.

The rest of Europe was Christian or fast becoming so; for, when a monarch accepted the Cross, he also accepted it for his nation, and even imposed it upon the lands he conquered. These became Christian in name, though for a long time remaining pagan in fact.

As the lands around the Mediterranean were the earliest civilized and populated, they became the earliest of Jewish settlement. So we shall hear nothing of our brethren in Scandinavia in the whole period covered by this work and little of them in Northeastern Europe.

Life for the Jews was made tolerable but scarcely enjoyable among the Goths, Allemani and Lombards, who broke up the Western Roman Empire, But we shall witness further "breakings up" and re-arranging of the map of Europe, until the different peoples come to group themselves into the European nations as we know them to-day.

The Franks.

Of all of these different tribes or races that drifted from the north and east, the most powerful were the Franks, already referred to in 'Thousand Years of Jewish History'. But we must say a little more about them and their development, for they largely affected Jewish life. Under one of their kings, Clovis, their dominion steadily spread on both sides of the Rhine, covering pretty much of what is now France and Germany. By accepting Christianity in its orthodox or catholic form, he received the support of its influential clergy, while the Vandals in Italy and the Ostragoths in Africa, espousing Arian Christianity, that was accepted only by a small minority, were steadily losing ground.

The next great Frank was styled Martel, meaning "The Hammer," for a reason similar to that which earned this title for one of Israel's early Judges, Gideon, and one of their late leaders, Judas, the Maccabee. (Both these names mean "Hammer.") Charles Martel directed sledge hammer blows against the Arabs, checking their further advance at Poictiers; for it was considered a duty, both religious and patriotic, to drive back the "heathen," as most non-Christian peoples were styled.


But it is his grandson with whom we are concerned, Charlemagne, He pushed his conquests against Saxons, Lombards and Huns, keeping the Moors beyond the Pyrenees. But he came down further and added Northern Italy to the Prankish Empire, crowning his son as King of Rome. So his empire extended from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. We shall see the tremendous consequence of this union of North and South Europe in many ways.

But Charlemagne was more than a great conqueror, he was a great man. He fully deserved this name, which means Charles the Great. He lines up with the few who have directed the world's destinies. He was broad minded and enlightened. In an age of despotism he recognized the civil rights of his subjects, and in an age of ignorance he raised their social status, promoting education, art, manufacture and commerce. A scholar himself, speaking Latin and Greek, he encouraged scholars to settle in his empire.

Is it surprising that under such a ruler the status of the Jews distinctly improved? He was too large a man to persecute them or even treat them contemptuously. A good Christian himself, and establishing bishoprics throughout his dominions, his policy towards them was entirely opposed to the restrictions of Church Councils. In the domain of commerce, for which circumstances best fitted the Jews, they were unhampered by bigoted restrictions, though a severe oath was imposed upon them in testifying against Christians. Greater freedom of travel being allowed them, they began to spread over Germany and to drift towards Eastern Europe. Charlemagne's Mohammedan contemporary, Haroun Al Raschid, best known to readers through "The Arabian Nights," sent ambassadors to pay him homage. He chose Isaac, a Jew, as one of an embassy to Al Raschid's court at Bagdad, entrusted with secrets of State; his colleagues dying, Isaac returned as sole ambassador.

One of Charlemagne's requests to the Caliph in fact concerned the welfare of the Jews and illustrates again his sense of duty to further the higher welfare of all people under his sway. He asked for a learned Babylonian Jew to direct the religious and educational needs of the Jews of the Frankish Empire. So one Machir was sent, who became the head of the congregation and founder of the Academy of Narbonne. With the same purpose in view, he transplanted the learned Kalonymos family from Lucca to Mayence. For he sufficiently appreciated his Jewish subjects to wish them to have their sources of learning and authority within his own dominions, with a centre on each side of the Rhine.

Holy Roman Empire.

We will complete this general survey with that event in Charlemagne's career that marks the opening of a new epoch for Europe and that was to touch the Jew in unexpected ways. While he was worshipping in St. Peter's at Rome on Christmas, 800, Pope Leo III set a crown upon his head and declared him Carolus Augustus, Roman emperor.

What did it mean? It meant the revival of the defunct Roman Empire in name at least and made it the background and setting af the Roman Church — The Holy Roman Empire. While bringing no added provinces, the halo of the revived title brought tremendous prestige. As the old empire had come to represent almost the whole civilized world politically, so Christianity now claimed control of the world spiritually. The theory now was: One Church, one State, each supporting the other. Mark, too, it was the Pope who crowned the Emperor. This meant the Church's claim of superior sway. That claim was to make stirring doings in the centuries following.

So, by this adroit act of a far-seeing Pope, a new page in history began.

Eastern Roman Empire.

This "arrangement" did not include the eastern half of the Roman Empire — the Byzantine, with its capital at Constantinople; for, although it extended from Greece to Asia Minor, it was becoming more of a negligible quantity. It had steadily declined since the days of Justinian, who flourished in the sixth century. It was not so successful as the Frankish Empire in keeping off the "infidel." It had not a Martel. So, in the seventh century the Mohammedans took from it Judea, Syria and Egypt. They were steadily creeping towards Constantinople.

In the eighth century, one of its Emperors, Leo, became known as "The Iconoclast," (image breaker), for he broke the images in the churches in answer to the taunt that he was an idolater by his Moslem enemies. He then persecuted the Hebrews in response to the cry that he had become a "Jew" — raised by his Christian friends, because forsooth he had treated them tolerantly! This meant for our ancestors exile or Christian disguise until the storm blew over. In 842 the Church Council at Nicaea reintroduced image worship, but did not abolish Jewish persecution. So Christianity was to continue for many centuries "a baptized paganism," as a Christian divine has styled it.

Byzantine Jews, though denied public office and other privileges, were not disturbed in their occupations, of which the silk industry was chief.


Passover and Easter:—It was at the dififerent councils held at Nicaea that the doctrine of the Christian Church was gradually formulated, hence known as the "Nicene Creed."

At the first council, in 325, it was decided that the date for Easter should no longer be the first day of Passover — Nisan 15th — but should be chosen by a different calculation. This was one of many steps taken to widen the gulf between Judaism and Christianity. See Bryce's The Holy Roman Empire for a picture of the complete evolution of Christian Rome from pagan Rome.

Theme for Discussion:—A critic has said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an Empire. Analyze this criticism.